8) Learning settings
A large number of contributors noted the importance of keeping schools open, though some highlighted the risk of virus transmission in schools and some wanted the right to continue to opt for blended learning or home schooling. A key topic of discussion was the safety of both staff and pupils in schools, and the different safety procedures that should or could be followed. Blended learning and distance learning divided opinion with some contributors arguing for blended learning to ensure schools could stay open, while others highlighted the difficulties and pressures around home schooling. While some wanted to see a complete move to online teaching in further and higher education, others emphasised the importance of in-person experiences to university and college students.
Key themes discussed included:
- Keeping schools and early learning open
- Contracting the virus and mitigating actions
- Blended learning and distance-learning
- Further and higher education
Keeping schools and early learning open
There appeared to be high levels of agreement regarding keeping schools open among the contributions which addressed this theme. Comments highlighted the perceived positive psycho-social and educational impacts for children, including improved mental health, learning and, in the longer term, future opportunities. Calls for schools not to be shut again cited concerns about compounding the negative psychological (loneliness, poor mental health), social (especially for children with complex home lives) and educational (both short and long term) impacts that were seen as a result of the lockdown. A number of contributions also pointed out that keeping schools open is vital for enabling members of the family to go to work.
‘The re-opening of schools and childcare settings made a huge impact on children who were suffering from the lack of structure that school and education brings, along with the physical and social impact of running around, playing and mixing with their peers. (...) Schools must remain a priority in terms of staying open.’
There were, however, some calls to close schools due to the perceived impact on virus transmission.
‘Close the school, gyms, pubs because we are seeing so much crowd near these places.. Also start the school online via [video conferencing] so that children can get the education and we can decrease the virus spread.’
There were calls for baby and toddler groups to be kept open, and their importance to single parents in particular was highlighted. There was concern regarding the lack of opportunities for toddlers to socialise and build their social skills.
‘Everyone needs a piece of normality so please consider everyone. Under 3s as they don't have any other socialization opportunities as not all will attend nursery unless paid for privately by hardworking parents. the next 6 months are going to be hard on young toddlers as many will struggle with outdoor activities and parents may also have other children too. so let them have things like music groups, pre school gymnastics, swimming.’
There were multiple calls for soft play centres to re-open, and contributors emphasised the importance of these during winter months as rainy days will prohibit going to outdoor play parks. The health benefits of soft play centres in terms of exercise were also noted. Some contributors argued that they did not understand why pubs were allowed to stay open when soft play centres were not – this was seen as an example of prioritising adults’ spaces for socialisation over those of other, younger age groups. Furthermore some respondents saw a inconsistency between schools and formal childcare being open, but various community activities such as toddler groups still being closed. Contributors also compared the situation in Scotland to other parts of the UK where soft play centres have been allowed to re-open.
Contracting the virus and mitigating actions
There was debate about the level of risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 for school-aged children and particularly for the younger age groups. While some respondents were thought that the risks were low, others were more concerned.
‘Scottish Government should implement the blended learning contingency plan for over the winter months, to allow for proper distancing within classrooms (for primary and secondary schools). Yes, it makes life harder and isn't ideal for parents or children (I am a single parent family working full time so fully understand this) but I firmly believe that schools have contributed to the spread of the virus. Thankfully young people and primary age children are unlikely to become seriously ill if they do contract the virus, but that doesn't mean that they don't carry it home to their families.’
Further, a number of contributions expressed the view that very little has been done to prevent spread of COVID-19 in schools, and that the risk associated with schools is not adequately appreciated. Contributors drew on examples such as face coverings and ventilation in schools. Several commenters voiced concerns about the safety of pupils and staff in schools and questioned the adequacy of current physical distancing and hygiene measures in place in schools. Some also called for more extensive testing among pupils, and it was suggested that there should be staggered pick up times and parents should wear masks when collecting children from school.
Some called for parents to have a right to choose if they want to send their children to school.
‘A lot of countries are giving to the parents the right to choose whether they want to risk their kids and family sending the kids back to school (as kids of any age can get COVID-19 and spread it to others, and, even though the chance that a kid could die of [COVID-19] is low, a kid can die of it) or having online learning provided by the school/council. I think it’s my right to choose if I want to keep my kid learning from home (to protect her, my new-born and my family) or sending her to school. (…).’
Additionally, there were concerns about the knock-on effects of schools for the wider community, for example in terms of large numbers of pupils using public transport at busy times and not social distancing, as well as in terms of older pupils not wearing face coverings.
Blended learning and distance-learning
Among the contributions which addressed this theme, opinion showed views for and against blended learning, and its effectiveness was a source of debate in the comments. Those contributions in favour of blended learning saw it as a method to ensure pupils had access to in-person learning at least part-time, and as a tool to limit the number of students attending face to face teaching and therefore increasing the safety of teaching staff and pupils.
‘Blended learning is the best compromise between having a "normal" education and protecting the lives and health of parents and teachers. This was the original plan and was very sensible and cautious. It would have allowed children to return to the classroom in smaller groups while still allowing them to engage at home using technology. It might not have be 100% ideal but would be a lot safer. Supposedly we didn't need to go to blended learning because prevalence of the virus in Scotland was so low.’
Opponents disputed the effectiveness of blended learning over time, and cited pressures on parents across the different age groups but particularly as regards early years and primary pupils. Concerns were raised about the attainment gap increasing between students who have access to support at home and those who do not, and perceived differences in the provision of support between state and independent schools were highlighted. It was argued that not enough support was made available to parents to support blended learning.
‘From my experience of blended learning during lockdown it is not effective for long periods of time; my children started off motivated and enthusiastic, but after about 6 weeks any effective learning tailed off. It also impacted on our parent/child relationship as it became a stressful experience all round. Learning at school should be the normal situation for primary and secondary pupils with blended learning used as a precision tool to support learning during self-isolation or school specific situations for as short a time as necessary.’
Some contributors voiced concerns about inequality of access to technology and the need to ensure this is provided for. A number of contributors arguing against blended learning were basing their arguments on the belief that children are at very low risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19.
There was some discussion around assessments with a number of contributions calling for scrapping formal examinations and using continuous assessment methods instead.
‘Scrap exams and prelims this year, with a focus on continual assessment. The pressure of having to study for exams is too much for our young people alongside the uncertainty of COVID-19 and the ever changing restrictions. The young people have missed 6 months of social interaction. Trying to deal with the lockdown and being back at school straight into exam mode is causing extreme anxiety and stress.’.
Further and higher education
With regard to further and higher education settings, there were calls for tighter teaching restrictions on campuses, and the increase in infections was seen to be connected to university and college teaching having started. Some contributors wanted to see a wholesale move to online teaching.
‘Stop Universities to be allowed teaching face to face NOW. Exposing staff to teach in enclosed rooms with over 100 students in one week is playing a gamble with people’s lives. Stop it! It is not a necessity for learning and the measure are increasing workload to unsustainable levels. Be sensible!’
However, others pointed out the importance of other aspects of the experience of going to college or university such as socialising with peers and learning in groups.
The issue of students not having access to benefits, such as Universal Credit, was flagged, and there were calls to provide income support for students who had lost their jobs and are struggling to support themselves financially. In terms of student accommodation, the infection clusters related to student halls were noted, and some contributors argued that only those who couldn’t return to their homes (i.e. foreign students in particular) should be allowed to stay in student halls. Relatedly, there were calls for allowing students to return home.
‘[The] pandemic is only making [mental health of students] worse. Please allow students home to see their parents. As a student myself it’s very frustrating as I have been sticking to all the rules but I’m not able to see my family at a time when my mental health is suffering from so many angles.’